Scott Gessler calls for fewer limits on campaign finance -- to protect free speech

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Restrictions on campaign finance are ultimately violations of free speech rights and do little to foster fair elections.

At least that's the argument of Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who, in a speech yesterday, said he would like to see fewer limitations on campaign finance, arguing that reform efforts generally have failed.

"I tend to be a free-speech absolutest.... We as humans, as Americans, have God-given rights to speak our mind," Gessler said at a University of Denver panel on campaign finance. "When you restrict people, and government shouldn't do that...you are violating the First Amendment and you're harming our society greatly."

He added, "And practically, I don't think it works."

This speech from Gessler, a Republican and Colorado's chief election officer, was delivered just weeks after the close of the presidential election, which resulted in millions of dollars spent in this key swing state.

The comments also come on the heels of Colorado voters overwhelmingly passing Amendment 65 -- a measure that calls for Colorado's congressional delegation to support limits on spending at the federal level. This measure -- which was overshadowed by Colorado's successful pot measure -- is symbolic, since governments can't restrict political spending at the state level.

As we reported, more than 70 percent of residents in Colorado from counties across the state voted in favor of A65, and its proponents say the message against excessive spending in politics is clear.

But Gessler, who has gotten a lot of attention this election cycle for his controversial anti-fraud iniaitives, says efforts to limit campaign spending have been unsuccessful. The more governments try to restrict this kind of spending, he believes, the more they will be interfering with basic constitutional rights.

"The world we live in is the one shaped by campaign finance regulations," said Gessler, who has taught election law at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. "In Colorado...the people who have supported campaign finance regulations have gotten almost everything they wanted."

He was referring to Amendment 27, which passed in 2002 with the stated aim of curbing special interests in elections. The measure sets limits on contributions to candidates and was designed to encourage more candidates to run by restricting the extent to which corporations can influence races.

"Campaign finance regulation [is], in my view, very intensive, sometimes very intrusive," Gessler said. "And...in many ways, on its own terms, it has failed as a system.... It has created harms and costs here that have distorted our political process in a way that does not serve democracy well."

Continue for more from Gessler's speech and response from his critics. Gessler said that while supporters of campaign finance regulations want to fight corruption, get big money out of politics and curb outrageous spending, he feels limitations have had many negative consequences.

He noted that many groups and candidates have been forced to pay major fines in penalties due to late filings -- around $1.8 million total from December 2010 through last month in Colorado.

Gessler argued that regulations haven't helped candidates focus on people instead of money, as some have hoped. "We have such small dollar limits that candidates spend a huge, inordinate amount of time because they have to fill an ocean one teaspoonful at a time."

Another of Gessler's arguments: Regulations have hurt smaller groups that struggle with the complicated processes required of them while allowing wealthy outside organizations to pour money into races and have a huge impact on elections. As a result, he thinks the actual candidates and the political parties have less influence in their own races.

In short, government should just stay out of the way, Gessler said.

He told us in an interview after the speech, "It's restricted candidates and restricted parties so heavily that they don't have the resources to do much of anything."

When we asked Gessler about the passage of Amendment 65, he dismissed the initiative.

"Amendment 65 is entirely symbolic, and because it's symbolic, it really didn't spur much of a debate," he said, adding, "I wasn't a fan of it."

Unsurprisingly, Danny Katz, director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a statewide advocacy group and one of the proponents of 65, told us he fundamentally disagreed with Gessler's arguments.

"This concept that the size of your pocket should determine the amount of speech you have seems wrong to me," he said. "Money does not equal speech. If it did, then those with the deepest pockets would have more speech, would be entitled to more speech."

In regard to Gessler's comment that independent groups are having more influence because candidates are facing overly harsh restrictions, Katz replied, "If you're gonna have limits on candidates, but you're worried that they're then...not able to match the power of these outsiders, then limit the money and power of these outsiders."

He added, "Colorado spoke this last election.... We don't think our democracy works best when a few individuals have million dollar megaphones."

More from our Politics archive: "Amendment 64: John Hickenlooper setting up broad task force regarding marijuana measure"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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